Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.
Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review
Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links.
Three Sheets to the Wind by Jeffrey Pannell
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 4.
In Three Sheets to the Wind the characters will find themselves following a literal paper trail as they try to hunt down a missing book before it provokes a magical catastrophe. Set in Sharn, in the Eberron universe, this adventure is a light hearted pulp romp based around fun with portals. A shipment of books has gone missing from the library and the party is tasked with tracking it down, however before they reach the shipment, the magic in the books has escaped, forming a book golem that causes havoc throughout the city before escaping through a portal. The party has to collect the three missing pieces of the portal spell, being carried by creatures summoned in the magical explosion, before tracking down the golem itself and attempting to reclaim the books in a portal hopping chase scene. At the start of each chapter there is a breakdown of the plot of the chapter, with notable NPCs, antagonists and DM tips. Sometimes this is a bit too much, as it can be slightly repetitive in some instances, but overall this is a really good addition that would be nice to see developed in other adventures.
There are lots of snippets of humour spread throughout the adventure, some of which will only every be read by the DM but which serve to set the tone. Much of the humour that the players will notice is based on subverting expectations. This is notably the case with the three summoned creatures that defy normal D&D lore: evil unicorns and friendly demons for example. Like all referential humour this will work the best with players that have enough experience with D&D to actually get the reference, though there are jokes that everyone should get. The adventure also makes good use of the high magic setting, with portals, magic beasts and objects, and just generally playing into the theme. While occasionally the descriptions can run on a bit, the story and world elements are overall really solid.
On a mechanical level the design is more hit and miss however, though leaning more towards the hit overall. The three “summon encounters” that make up chapter 2 don’t have a lot of depth to them. The unicorn encounter is a decent combat encounter, however the two other encounters based on social interaction don’t really have much too them, the modron encounter being particularly light. While these social interactions definitely have potential to really captivate the players, it is very much upon the DM and players too make it work, rather than being supported by the text itself. Chapter 3 however, involving chasing down the book golem, makes full use of the chase mechanics from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s a fun sequence where every complication sends the characters hurtling through a new whimsical locations that change things up along the way. The entire list of complications provided is one of the best uses of the chase mechanics from the DMG that I’ve seen. It’s also nice that the golem encounter isn’t just a fight using chase rules, but that the characters are meant to be trying to pull books of the golem to defeat it. This dramatic ending I feel more than makes up for the slightly weaker middle section.
It’s a solid adventure, that’s short and quite punchy, really playing into the aesthetics of Eberron and the action-adventure cinematic vibe that it gives off. Some elements might need a little bit of polish, to boost up some of the sections mechanics, but there is a great skeleton to build on and adapt to your groups needs and preferences. Humour is always going to be subjective but there is a little bit for everyone in here, and that should be easily adaptable to what works with your players. If you’re looking for an adventure that will quickly immerse your players into the Eberron setting and evoke a fun and chaotic pulp chase through different worlds, then this is a great place to start!
Behind the Screens
Hello Jeffrey, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. Your adventure is rooted into the world of Eberron. A lot of adventures from the RPG Writer Workshop have been system neutral. What was the thought process behind going for Eberron in particular?
My original intention was to start out with a neutral setting, and calling back to that I did leave some options for DMs to drop this into any large city, though it certainly feels more at home in the City of Towers. When I started working on the adventure though, I still had that very vague idea of what type of environment I wanted. My first adventure was set in a town that I based on my personal experiences in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, and so I thought I could change to another biome with which I was familiar and go from there. So with that in mind, my first outline was in a desert based on where I grew up. But then when I spoke with Andrew Browne (@monomizerart) who did the cover art, we came to the conclusion that some of the themes would work better in an urban area. As an artist, I had seen Andrew do just mind blowing art of Tokyo skylines and urban settings, which really said Sharn to me. Eberron was always a favorite campaign setting of mine, and the moment it hit me that we could take this back there, everything else fell into place.
It seems like your adventure really captures a “pulp action adventure detective” feel to it. Was this intentional when you first started designing it, or did it just develop as you went?
I feel like the tone was highly influenced by the setting. One of my thoughts going into an adventure is that I want to give space for different emotional beats to happen, that way the DM has some flexibility to focus on what works best for their players. I looked at the array of emotional beats I wanted to touch on, and worked outward from there. I like to think I was able to touch on that feeling with this adventure as well, while still remaining true to the high adventure tone of Eberron.
The final chase scene is a really great set piece. Firstly on the aesthetics of it, I really like the way that you’ve fleshed out the complications so that the party flies through one world to the next as they dive through the portals. Do you have any advice for DMs running this scene on how to really play into this and set the scene for the players? Secondly, on a more mechanical level, I’ve seen quite a few chase scenes designed in the RPGWW and this is the first one I’ve seen where someone has actually used the chase rules from the DMG. It’s actually surprisingly refreshing to see someone using them. I’d be interested in your perspective on how well you feel that these rules work?
The final chase scene took a lot of work and playtesting, but I’m happy with how it turned out in the end. I went through four or five drastically different incarnations on how that would run before settling on the final result. Recently, and well after I published the adventure, I saw a Twitter poll asking how DMs typically ran chases, and very few used the rules straight from the DMG, which took me completely by surprise. I honestly wasn’t aware that there was a preference for doing it any other way.
One of the highlights of recent gaming memory was taking my group through the chase scene in Waterdeep Dragon Heist. I ran that chase using the DMG rules, and I’ll never forget how one of our younger players leapt up and gave a massive victory roar as he actually managed to secure the Stone of Galore in the end. Everybody cheered and clapped, and it was exciting to see something like that. I was trying to capture some of that feeling with this chase as well. In the end, I think the DMG rules work well, but it’s important to be excited for the chase along with your players.
In regard to advice with running the chase scene, I would say that quick descriptions and reactions help so that people don’t feel like they’re bogged down with ability checks. Those should come quickly, and add to the flavor and the intensity of how the chase is progressing. I would also say that the complications give a lot of flavor to the world in this situation, so feel free to just pick something if you think the players would enjoy it. You don’t have to roll if you don’t want to. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to drop in some foreshadowing or let the players get a glimpse of what they might be dealing with next in their regular campaign.
At the start of each chapter you’ve included a nice little, often humorous, summary with the plot details, DM tips, main NPCs and everything that the DM needs. This is something I’d like to see more of in adventures. How do you feel these worked out? Would you change them in anyway or are you satisfied with them?
Finding information on the fly in adventures is something I’ve always personally found difficult. By nature I tend to be a bit scattered anyway, and when I DM taking the time to stop and look something up is particularly problematic. I knew I wanted to do something to streamline that resource a bit, and when I ran a playtest for Bob Carnicom (shoutout to @Bob_The_Tree for his excellent work!), I saw he had something similar and loved the idea. I decided I wanted to include some quick reference advice along those lines and information at the beginning of each chapter to hopefully make life easier for the DM running it. The humor was unavoidable, and I would like to at this point provide an allergen warning to anybody with allergies to particularly dorky dad humor. I like how the information headers turned out overall, and think I’ll be including them in products I make from now on. Perhaps adjust the dial a smidgeon on how concise the descriptions are.
Finally, I’d like to talk about the book golem. I really like the idea of dangerous books in pretty much any work of fiction, but especially here. An arcane powered golem made of scrolls and books is possibly my ideal monster. In the chase, if the characters just fight it and defeat it normally it explodes, whereas they can defeat it and recover the books by dismantling it. Why did you prefer this more skill based encounter rather than traditional combat?
I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the book golem! I suspect a large number of players will still take the hack and slash approach to dealing with it, but I wanted to make sure there was something extra and viable for those players who key in on what the story and DM telegraph. The danger and skill in dismantling the book golem after the chase also tends to lend some panache that I felt players would enjoy. Generally speaking, there are so many things you can handle through pure damage and I hope this gives another path of interest.
Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish ?
One of the things I enjoyed the most when writing the adventure, and what received the most positive feedback in playtests, were the NPCs. I’m excited to hear how it works out for others who run this adventure, and really hope people enjoy it. I’d also generally like to say I do have a few more projects planned for this year, so if you enjoyed Three Sheets to the Wind please give me a follow for updates on that front. I also just wanted to say thanks so much for doing these reviews! It’s difficult operating in a void of feedback, so the chance to talk without somebody outside of the project is exciting.
Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!
Until next time, be more kind,